Identifying the neural circuitry of alcohol craving and relapse vulnerability

Addict Biol. 2009 Jan;14(1):108-18. doi: 10.1111/j.1369-1600.2008.00136.x. Epub 2008 Oct 9.


With no further intervention, relapse rates in detoxified alcoholics are high and usually exceed 80% of all detoxified patients. It has been suggested that stress and exposure to priming doses of alcohol and to alcohol-associated stimuli (cues) contribute to the relapse risk after detoxification. This article focuses on neuronal correlates of cue responses in detoxified alcoholics. Current brain imaging studies indicate that dysfunction of dopaminergic, glutamatergic and opioidergic neurotransmission in the brain reward system (ventral striatum including the nucleus accumbens) can be associated with alcohol craving and functional brain activation in neuronal systems that process attentional relevant stimuli, reward expectancy and experience. Increased functional brain activation elicited by such alcohol-associated cues predicted an increased relapse risk, whereas high brain activity elicited by affectively positive stimuli may represent a protective factor and was correlated with a decreased prospective relapse risk. These findings are discussed with respect to psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatment options.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Alcoholism / rehabilitation*
  • Animals
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Cues
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Motivation*
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Reward
  • Social Environment
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / psychology
  • Temperance / psychology*
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / metabolism


  • Ethanol
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid
  • Dopamine